Roman R. Williams

Originally published on May 13, 2015 in Seeing Religion: Toward a Visual Sociology of Religion.

An invitation

The potential of visual research methods for the sociology of religion is vast, but largely untapped. The absence of these methods is curious given the visual and material nature of religion and spirituality in the contemporary world. Material culture and human behavior are central to visual research (Pauwels 2011) and abound in the domains of religion and spirituality. Houses of worship, for example, are a prominent feature of the modern landscape (Vergara 2005; Richter 2007, 2011; Krieger 2011; Day 2014), and everyday religious faith and practice are materially present in everything from clothing and jewelry (McDannell 1995) to artifacts found in people’s homes and workplaces (Williams 2010b). Not only is the symbolic and material presence of religion palpable throughout society, religion informs behaviors, practices, and attitudes, which are embodied and enacted throughout the many domains of everyday life (McGuire 2008;Ammerman 2013). Standard research methods that rely on words and numbers alone, however, offer an incomplete picture of religion and spirituality in the contemporary cultural landscape. These visual and material dimensions of religion require an additional set of tools, an alternate way of doing the sociology of religion.

This volume explores some of these tools. It is not a comprehensive handbook, but rather a starting point for a conversation about visual methods; it is a step toward a visual sociology of religion. Instead of producing chapters with a singular focus on visual methods, contributors present findings from their current research balanced with well-documented discussions of their methodology. Each chapter aims to stimulate the visual imagination through examples of research techniques, analytical approaches, and methodological concerns important to visual sociology. Throughout the book, the purchase of these visual techniques is established through their application to research topics central to the sociology of religion. This chapter situates the book within the broader field of visual research by defining visual sociology, surveying the ways visual techniques have been used to study religion, and orienting readers to the contents of the chapters that follow.

What is visual sociology?

Howard Becker observed that “[p]hotography and sociology have approximately the same birth date, if you count sociology’s birth as the publication of Comte’s work which gave it its name, and photography’s birth as the date in 1839 when Daguerre made public his method for fixing an image on a metal plate” (1974:3). And while these two new ways of seeing were slow to integrate, photographs not only shaped Durkheim’s ethnographic depiction of the Arrernte, but also his selection of theoretical concepts and methodological procedures” even though photographs are absent from Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Kreinath 2012:368). Early examples of images in social research appear in thirty-one articles written in the American Journal of Sociology between 1896 and 1916, but “two-thirds of the articles employed photographs in a way that contemporary visual sociologists would question” (Stasz 1979:128). Among them, twenty-three articles mention religion, but few offer more than a superficial treatment. McClintock’s photograph of “A Foot-Washing Service of the Hardshell Baptists on the Mud Fork of Island Creek” (1901:19) may be the first image to depict religion published in a sociology journal. After 1916, photographs are absent from sociology journals until much later in the twentieth century, largely because the “increasing influence of statistical methods induced an abrupt substitution of photos by formula[s], charts, and tables as the predominant form of appropriate scientific illustration” (Schnettler and Raab 2009:266; cf. Henny 1986).

Even though the use of photographs in sociological research may have been brushed aside temporarily, some sociologists of the early twentieth century recognized their potential. An important example is Middletown (1929) co-author Robert Lynd, who was influential in shaping the work of Roy Stryker and the 270,000 images made during the Great Depression by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers (Suchar 1997). Lynd became enthusiastic while viewing FSA photographs as Stryker recalled years later, and remarked,”‘[t]his is a wonderful device for sociologists.’ [Lynd] then got off onto a long discourse on the need to make people really see” (Stryker and Wood 1973:8, their emphasis; cf. Suchar 1997). Apparently, the images were a little too sociological for the taste of renowned photographer Ansel Adams, who criticized FSA photographers as “a bunch of sociologists with cameras” (Stryker and Wood 1973:8). Adams’s criticism was prescient, as one FSA photographer, John Collier, Jr., went on to pioneer a technique known as photo elicitation (Collier 1957) and to make important contributions in visual anthropology (Collier 1967; Collier and Collier 1986).

The commission of the FSA and photographers’ own artistic styles of representation influenced how they depicted America during the mid-1930s and early 1940s.”While Stryker believed that religion was an integral part of American society and culture, both he and his photographers were profoundly skeptical of the ability of religious organizations to effect change in the modern world” (McDannell 2012:103). At a time when American religious life was characterized as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish (Herberg 1955), the activities of Christians predominate the FSA collection, which contains “only a few photographs of Jews, synagogue life, or Jewish culture” (McDannell 2012:107). However understood—as artistic, sociological, skeptical, or selective—many FSA images preserve evidence of religious life (McDannell 2004) and comprise a set of data that awaits the attention of sociologists of religion.

It was not until the 1970s that visual sociology took form around a core group of sociologists, most of whom were “photographers as well as sociologists, and predisposed to field work research” (Harper 1996:71).1 Howard Becker (1974), Erving Goffman (1976), and Jon Wagner (1979) made important contributions to this emerging field.The publication of Timothy Curry and Alfred Clarke’s (1978) textbook helped to stake out the territory of visual sociology—interestingly, it includes three full-page images of serpent handling taken from Ken Ambrose’s doctoral thesis (1978). These photographs, however, are preceded by Bennetta Jules-Rosette’s (1975) still and cinematic images of worship and ritual in an African initiated church. Her photos appear to be the earliest published examples of sociology of religion during what may be considered the renaissance of visual sociology.

An unsuccessful attempt to establish a visual sociology section of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1980 may have seemed a setback at the time. While this could have legitimated visual sociology within the discipline, the formation of the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) in 1981 was serendipitous in retrospect. Curry (1986) suggests that IVSA allowed for a more international scope of participation and conferences, encouraged participation from other disciplines—anthropologists, for example, continue to participate, whereas they may not have been inclined to do so if ASA membership was required—and afforded a flexibility in annual conference sessions to accommodate the technological needs of presenters (e.g., image projection equipment). The evolution of the Visual Sociology Newsletter into its current form as Visual Studies reflects IVSA’s inclusive ethos, and maintains a high standard of scholarship and quality for printing images (Harper 1996).2

From the early days, visual sociology was built upon a conviction that images offer a new way of studying sociology. For Curry and Clarke, visual sociology represented a paradigm shift: “Just as the telescope and the microscope provided new kinds of visual information…the still camera…provides a new order of seeing, which in turn, requires a special way of analyzing information” (1978:28).The sentiment that visual social science “leads to new understandings and insights because it connects to different realities than do conventional empirical research methods” continues to echo throughout the literature (Harper 2012:4). From the early days to the present, visual sociology is frequently characterized by insiders as a different way of doing social science (Grady 1996).

The most obvious way that visual sociology is differentiated from words-and-numbers sociology is the emphasis on visual materials, including (but not limited to) photographs, film, video, print media, digital media, maps, and drawings. These visual data may be created by the researcher, a research participant, or a third party with whom the researcher may have little or no relationship. Images produced by research participants, for example, may be used in semi-structured interviews to “invoke comments, memory and discussion” (Banks 2007:65). Transcripts from these interviews, in turn, may be coded for salient themes relevant to the research, as is done in other forms of qualitative data analysis. Likewise, a quantitative, visual content analysis of the same photographs may be undertaken in which the researcher explores the manifest and latent content present in the images (e.g., Goffman 1976; Bell 2003; Bock, Isermann, and Knieper 2011; Nardella 2012). And these numbers may be represented as visualizations through which the data are further explored by the researcher, or to communicate information in compelling and insightful ways to a variety of audiences (Tufte 2001, 2006; Grady 2007). It is important to underscore that while visual sociology is a different way of studying social science, an emphasis on the visual does not neglect words-and-numbers techniques traditional to the discipline (cf. Ball and Gilligan 2010:n.p.). Likewise, visual methodologies and the data they produce are not to be thought of as supplemental.

Some mistake visual sociology as a subfield of qualitative sociology.While it is true that most visual techniques seem to lie at that end of the research methods spectrum, such a view is too narrow. Others regard visual sociology as a subdiscipline in sociology analogous to the sociology of religion, but this is also an incomplete understanding—after all, it was denied such a status by failing to become an official section of the ASA. Neither a subfield nor subdiscipline, visual sociology is best understood as

a cross-cutting field of inquiry, a way of doing and thinking that influences the whole process of researching (conceptualizing, gathering, and communicating). It is not just a “sociology of the visual” (as subject), but also a method for sociology in general (whatever its field: law, religion, culture, etc.) and a way of thinking, conceptualizing, and presenting ideas and findings.

(Pauwels 2011:13)

Visual sociology,then,is something more than inserting a photograph as an illustration in a book, article, or conference paper. Instead, visual sociologists treat still and motion images as evidence, data to be analyzed, and information useful in explaining social life.

Visual methods in the sociology of religion

Visual methods are not entirely absent from the sociology of religion. In recent years, articles and book chapters have offered general overviews of visual methods (Cipriani and Del Re 2010; Dunlop and Richter 2010; Richter 2011). Other publications emphasize specific techniques (Nesbitt 1993,2000b;Vassenden and Andersson 2010; Ammerman and Williams 2012). While these authors offer helpful methodological overviews, none present a comprehensive review of the literature. Claims of a complete literature review may be hazardous (see Williams and Whitehouse Forthcoming 2015); instead, I have assembled here a representative collection of books, articles, and postgraduate work (master’s and doctoral theses) in which visual methods are employed in the social scientific study of religion. And while in this chapter I emphasize work in the sociology of religion, the propensity for research methods to cross disciplines invites exploration beyond these borders.

To explore how sociologists (and other social scientists) use visual research techniques in their work on religion, the literature is organized around the visual medium (photography, videography, other) and its source. Visual materials fall along a continuum ranging from anonymous artifacts (a photo purchased at a thrift store or church rummage sale) to researcher-generated data (interviews videotaped by a researcher). In between these ends lie “artifacts with known provenance,” “other researcher’s data,” and “respondent-generated data” (Pauwels 2011:7). As one progresses along this spectrum, the researcher’s involvement in image production as well as their knowledge of why and how an image was produced increases. Moments of collaboration are also present in the origination of visuals in which researchers partner with respondents, other researchers, or media professionals to produce images.

Found materials

We live in a visual age, a historical period some consider to be in the midst of a “pictorial turn,” in which visual representations are increasingly important and prolific (Mitchell 1994).There is no shortage of visual information in contemporary culture. From mobile telephones equipped with cameras to the countless images on the screens of iPads, computer monitors, and televisions, images are everywhere and everyone from children to digital media professionals seems to be making them. Valuable data about religion and spirituality are recorded, preserved, and disseminated on a vast array of old and new technologies.

Some visual data are present in and among congregations.

Significant quantities of archive photographs of a…[religious group’s] building(s), people, regular activities, and significant historical occasions may be found in, for example, congregants’ private photograph albums, newspaper reports, published histories…, displayed photographs, and…[religious] or secular archives.

(Richter 2011:213)

First communion and wedding photographs will have different casts of characters, but may reveal common practices, beliefs, and rituals (Bourdieu 1990). The archives of research libraries and religious organizations contain an untold number of images. Traces of religion and spirituality are also present in popular media: print and television advertisements, newspaper and magazine articles, television shows and motion pictures, YouTube and Vimeo (and their lesser known siblings), Facebook and Tumblr and Flickr, and the websites of countless individuals, organizations, and corporations.

Examining found visual materials may offer researchers demographic information such as the number and kind of people present, or may reveal norms, values, and priorities of a group of people. In turn, these images may suggest the significance of an event or place, reveal relationships, or help the researcher think about identity (presentation of individual or collective selves in and through visual media) and agency (what one did/ does/is capable of doing). Representations of religion and spirituality also may say something about the presence or absence of religion in society, its salience or relevance in everyday life, or the way(s) it shapes interactions. Thought may also be given to the social practices represented in the images, the practice of image making, or the image as a cultural product. In short, found images are a point of entry into a range of social worlds from the private to the public, the secular and the sacred, and everything between.

Using found images to understand religious narratives is not as straightforward as it may seem.When sociologists make use of found images, they “often lack sufficient background knowledge or contextual information with respect to the exact origin, the production circumstances, and the representative character of the acquired visual data set” (Pauwels 2011:6). Like all forms of information, images are framed by the person who makes them and the production of images involves numerous decisions about the medium (film vs. digital, still vs. motion, etc.), equipment (e.g., lens,aperture,shutter speed),framing (i.e.,what isin/out of the frame or viewfinder of the camera), perspective, composition, and tinting. Knowing something about who made the image, why it was made, and how it was made is important to the context of an image’s production.

Some work with found materials has been conducted in the sociology of religion.Jon Miller is behind important initiatives to collect historical photographs of missionary work (Miller 2007)3 and the creation of an archive of Pentecostal and charismatic religious expressions,4 both of which are available online. Found images have been used to study the portrayal of Christian leaders in fictional prime-time television shows (Skill and Robinson 1994), religious symbolism in American television commercials (Maguire and Weatherby 1998), the religious-like devotion of Mac computer enthusiasts (Lam 2001), modern day depictions of refugees (Wright 2002), spirituality among British youth (Savage et al. 2006), terror and transcendence in film (Cowan 2008, 2010), depictions of Buddhist Sikkim in tourist brochures and postcards (Arora 2009), Islam in the United States (Williams 2011), the subordination of female leaders in Nigerian church advertisements (Ajibabe 2012), devotion to Saint Agatha in Italy (Di Giovani 2012), religious themes in advertisements in Italian popular magazines (Nardella 2012), and devotion to Mary among Dutch pilgrims to Lourdes (Notermans and Kommers 2012).

Researcher-produced images

At the other end of the visual materials continuum are those initiated by the researcher. In comparison to found materials, when researchers generate their own visual data, they are—or at least should be—more aware (and self-aware) of the specific context (e.g., people, place, what happened before/after, etc.), purpose, image-making decisions (e.g., how the image is framed), and limitations associated with the data. Ideally, the thoughtful involvement of the researcher in producing the visual data and familiarity with the people, places, and objects represented will lead to what Geertz (1973) might have called thick visual description (cf. Bell Kaplan 2013:19). Images become something more than a compelling illustration or footage to be included in the end product: photographs, videos, and other visual representations are made for the purpose of collecting, exploring, and representing data.

Photography and videography are the most common forms of researcher-generated data in the sociology of religion. Still images have been incorporated in studies of serpent handling (Ambrose 1970, 1978), ritual and conversion in an African initiated church (Jules-Rosette 1975, 1980), Jewish communities around the world (Aron 1986, 1990, 2002),5 the religious socialization of children (Jackson and Nesbitt 1993; Nesbit 2000a, 2000b), embodied practices in worship (Van Mierlo 1994), feminist witches and women in the American Goddess movement (Griffin 1995), religion and the urban poor (Vergara 2005)6 national identity (Zubrzycki 2011), Sundays in three European towns (Richter 2007), secularization and migration in Europe (Hintze et al. 2008; Andersson 2009; Vassenden and Andersson 2010)7, memorials (Riley 2008; Jacobs 2008, 2010, 2011), religious identity and material culture (Konieczny 2009), religion and globalization (Krase and Shortell 2011; Shortell and Krase 2013), storefront churches (Krieger 2011), urban faith communities along Soho Road in Birmingham, England (Hingley 2011), religiously themed entries in small-town parades (Olson 2012), the American religious landscape (Scheide and Finke 2012; cf. Williams 20136), African Pentecostalism in Italy and Nigeria (Butticci 2013a), and religious diversity along Philadelphia’s Germantown Avenue (Day 2014).

Many researchers produce documentaries as a way to distill and disseminate their research findings (e.g., Smith 2010). Even though these are effective ways of presenting information about religion, visual research techniques are not used to collect or analyze their data and are instead a way of popularizing or extending the reach of scholarship. Other researchers use video as a research technique to collect, analyze, and present data; for example, about congregations (e.g., Ault 1987), “emotional worship” in an African Methodist Episcopal congregation (Nelson 1996), the practices of Maria-Lionza cult members in Venezuela (Ferrandiz Martin 1998), global Pentecostalism (Miller and Yamamori 2007), the ritual performance of a trance vision by the leader of a neo-revelationist religious movement located in south Germany (Schnettler 2008), Pentecostalism in Africa (Meyer 2006; Ukah and Echtler 2009), accounts of survivors of the Rwandan genocide (Miller 2010), conflict and coexistence in Israel (Cipriani and Del Re 2012), Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa (Ault 2013), African Pentecostals in Italy (Butticci 2013b), Pentecostalism in Brazilian prisons (Johnson and Patch 2014), and Pope Benedict’s mass ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin (Knoblauch 2014).8

Researchers also collect images in collaboration with professional photographers or gain access to images collected by another sociologist for further analysis. Sometimes, a researcher may choose to work with a professional photographer or videographer to produce images in the course of fieldwork, as is exemplified by Katie Day’s partnership with Edd Conboy (Day 2010, 2014)9 and Annalisa Butticci’s work with Andrew Esiebo (Butticci 2013a, 20136).10 Volume contributors Timothy Shortell and Jerome Krase, for example, make available more than 10,000 photographs collected in over forty global cities that they use to explore how urban neighborhoods are changing as a result of globalization (Krase and Shortell 2011). These photographs may be accessed online and include images relevant to the study of religion and globalization. Other important examples of researchers compiling web-based images include the Pluralism Project and A Journey through NYC Religions. While the use of other researchers’ visual materials is not a common research strategy among sociologists of religion, resources such as Shortell and Krases website invite other researchers to make use of their growing archive of images from cities around the world.

Along with making photos and videos, visual researchers also construct other forms of data—or construct data into other forms. A map is one example of a researcher-generated datum. Maps are typically regarded as a means for presenting data; however, these researcher-constructed images are also an important way for researchers to explore data (Tufte 2001:24; Grady 2006; McKinnon 2011). Like other forms of visual data, the layers of information present in researcher-generated maps may be mined for insights at later stages of research.Without constructing maps, for example, Kevin Dougherty and Mark Mulder (2009) may not have adequately comprehended congregational responses to growing urban diversity.Other researchers use GIS (geographic information systems software) maps (Ebaugh, O’Brien, and Chafetz 2000; Sinha et al. 2007; Mulder 2009, 2015) to explore the social topography of religious life.

Another type of visual representation of data that is becoming increasingly important is variously referred to as data visualization or an infographic (Healy and Moody 2014). While many sociologists of religion represent their numerical findings visually in the form of charts or graphs, data visualization moves beyond standard forms of representation. The presentation of evidence, Tufte argues,” should be constructed so as to assist with the fundamental tasks in reasoning about evidence: describing the data, making multivariate comparisons, understanding causality, integrating a diversity of evidence, and documenting the analysis” (2006:137). Not only may data visualizations explain research results, they may also become visual data in a study of how sociologists (re)present evidence. To date, the scholarship of data visualization is limited, even though it has become a cottage industry for Edward Tufte (1990, 1997, 2001, 2006; Grady 2006, 2011).

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life is a good example of data visualization techniques applied to the social scientific study of religion in which information moves beyond standard charts, graphs, and tables to more visually engaging and interactive representations of data.11 Not only do these types of visualization techniques make for more compelling presentations of findings within the walls of the academy, they are also in a form that is more likely to have purchase in the news media and thereby increase the relevance of research findings in the public sphere. Brian Grim’s work on global religious restrictions, for example, is important in its own right; equally significant are the ways the data from his study are visually presented to his audience.The ability of the data to help tell the story about the rising tide of religious restrictions world-wide in a visually engaging manner may be seen in Grim’s 2013 TEDx talk in Vatican City.12

Participant-produced images

Images produced by interviewees fall between found and researcher-produced images. When interviewees produce the images, the research becomes more dynamic and collaborative – it has the effect of transforming the role of researcher and interviewee, allowing the participant to drive the research (Clark 1999; Heisley and Levy 1991). A widely used technique for collaborating with participants to generate images is called photo elicitation (PE). It must be noted, however, that researchers also use found and researcher-produced images in PE.13 First developed by anthropologist John Collier, Jr. (1957), PE is “based on the simple idea of inserting a photograph into a research interview” (Harper 2002:13), which is used as a prompt to “invoke comments, memory and discussion” (Banks 2007:65). “If the PE interview goes well the person being interviewed sees himself or herself as the expert, as the researcher becomes the student.The photo becomes a bridge between people who may not even understand the extent to which they see the world differently” (Harper 2012:157). Researchers who use this technique often remark on its value in introducing new layers of detail into the study and in taking an interview—indeed the research—in directions that may not have been anticipated at the onset of the investigation. I like to think of participants’ photos as answers to questions one may otherwise have never known to ask (cf. Rieger 1986).

Participant-produced photographs have been used to study Sri Lankan children in training to become Buddhist monks (Samuels 2004, 2007, 2010), membership competition and community in an evangelical college group (Josephsohn 2007), emerging adults in Central and Eastern Europe (Dunlop 2008), the social construction of religious identities (Williams 2010a, 2013a), lived religion (Williams 20106; Ammerman 2013), religion among Polish immigrants in contemporary Britain (Dunlop and Ward 2012), and the implications of church closings in the Netherlands on the social and spiritual lives of members of the congregation (de Roest 2013).

Less frequently, participants generate data through video. In their case study of a youth group making a video about itself, Clark and Dierberg explore the ways digital storytelling engages “young people in the important process of articulation, giving them an opportunity to practice talking about and expressing what it means to them to embrace a religious identity” (2013:152, their emphasis). Their research also examines the process and product of digital storytelling as a way to investigate the role of narratives in constructing religious identities.” Other forms of participant-produced images in engaged scholarship include the use of network maps to explore the patterns of members’ “routines of work, leisure, and consumption” (Eiesland and Warner 1998:51), maps of worship contexts such as a sanctuary (Ammerman 1998), and congregational timelines (Eiesland and Warner 1998; Thumma 1998). Also, drawings have proven effective in discussing religion with children (Ridgely 2011).


While several authors discussed above do not consider themselves visual sociologists, they use a technique others consider to be a visual method. Videotaped worship services were “invaluable” in Timothy Nelson’s (1996:381) analysis of emotion, religious experience, and ritual, but he has little to say about the role of the visual in his methodology. Lam (2001) employs PE in her study of Mac users and implicit religion, but never identifies the method—it is either so mainstream (which it is not) that it requires little explanation, or she is unfamiliar with the vast literature on elicitation interviewing. It should be noted that Lam is not alone: on average, PE studies of religion include four references to visual research per article, whereas all other PE studies (i.e., those that do not examine religion) include three times as many references to the PE literature (Williams and Whitehouse Forthcoming 2015). Scheide and Finke (2012) offer a richly visual introduction to the American religious landscape, but do so with surprisingly little commentary on their methodology and no connection to the long tradition of documentary photography in social science research (see Harper 2012).

In these cases, I am persuaded, the researchers could not have observed what they did without utilizing visual methods to collect, analyze, and/or explain their data. Their work is thorough, thoughtful, and compelling. My concern, however, is that without seeing one’s work as a form of visual sociology, one’s efforts are deprived of important connections to practical, methodological, and theoretical work being done by visual sociologists. As a result, “[v]isual methods…seem to be reinvented over and over again without gaining much methodological depth and often without consideration of long existing classics in the field” (Pauwels 2010:546). This chapter begins to address this problem by providing an overview of the literature in which visual methods are used to study religion. Likewise, the chapters that follow offer examples of how specific research techniques are applied.

Sociologists of religion—myself included—are not the only ones who need to become more familiar with what is going on visually in sociology. Visual sociologists are relatively blind to important visual research conducted in the sociology of religion. A recent publication by a leading figure in visual sociology offers a striking example. In Visual Sociology, Harper sets out to review all examples of photo elicitation, but misses sixteen of the eighteen publications that use PE to examine religion. This oversight amounts to missing 14 percent of the literature on photo elicitation—stated differently, Harper missed 88 percent of the literature in which PE is used to study religion. Blind spots such as this deprive visual sociologists of important findings in the sociology of religion.

Overview of the book

Seeing Religion is an effort to demonstrate the unique contribution and potential of visual methods for the sociology of religion. The main purpose of this chapter is to orient readers to what visual sociology is and the literature in the field. It is not a comprehensive review of the literature, but one that adequately frames the work of the volume’s contributors. I hope that the extensive references will make visual research on religion more accessible and accelerate the work of others. As subsequent chapters take their place among the literature discussed above, they represent the beginnings of an effort to address the concerns I voiced in this chapter and to promote a more widespread use of visual methods in the social scientific study of religion.

In Chapter 2, Katie Day advocates for the use of photography in the study of urban religion. To do so, she discusses her use of researcher-produced images to gain insights into religious diversity and the permeable boundaries that exist among religious communities along Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Day 2014). This 8.5-mile (13.7 km) city street that winds through a variety of neighborhoods (ranging from the most affluent to the most disadvantaged) is home to some ninety congregations. Germantown Avenue cuts through populations distinguished by racial, ethnic, and religious differences. Day discusses how her partnership with a photographer enabled her to see a familiar city street with new eyes. Specifically, she reflects on her incorporation of photography in urban ethnography, focusing attention on interpreting visual data, the role of images in expanding the ethnographer’s gaze, visually capturing evidence of change and social capital, and presenting research findings.

Recently, American cities have become more attractive places for residential life. Instead of pursuing the American dream of a house in the suburbs, some people (especially white elites and hipsters) are moving into cities. A natural consequence of re-urbanization and gentrification is the displacement of the poor and racial minorities from city centers to the periphery. Demographic changes such as these affect congregations. In Chapter 3, Mark Mulder traces out the adaptive process of congregations in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He does so by drawing from census data, semistructured interviews, and mapping to understand congregational patterns of adaption. Along the way,he argues for the use of techniques such as maps as a way for sociologists of religion to visually analyze their data. By constructing maps to explore data visually in combination with census and interview data, Mulder argues, a nuanced understanding of congregations and urban space emerges.

Changing residential patterns are not unique to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Migration is a global phenomenon and, as people move into cities worldwide, their religious commitments and markers of religious identity accompany them. In Chapter 4, Jerome Krase and Timothy Shortell utilize a neighborhood photographic survey technique to examine the functions of the symbolic markers that accompany Muslim immigrants to American and European cities, and the tensions that may arise as these cultural symbols interact with local sensibilities.Their analysis of the markers that signify change stands as an example of how visual methods enable researchers to identify, analyze, and present aspects of religious phenomena that otherwise may have been missed using standard qualitative and quantitative methods.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on photo elicitation. Together, this pair of chapters demonstrates two approaches to using PE in research, thereby creating an internal conversation about its potential range of research applications. In Chapter 5, Anders Vassenden and Mette Andersson use interviewees’ responses to two photographs of religious symbols. Methodologically, they demonstrate the strength of using researcher-produced images in photo elicitation, namely the ability to make comparisons across distinct groups in a research sample. And in making use of this facility, Vassenden and Andersson demonstrate how this version of PE can be helpful in accessing cultural toolkits (Swidler 1986) through their analysis of the responses of Norwegian youth with migrant and non-migrant backgrounds to images of a cross and the ninety-nine names of Allah hanging from rearview mirrors in automobiles.

Visual research techniques are rarely used to study congregations. While Philip Richter (2011) has used and advocated a number of ways to explore congregations visually, very few researchers have followed his initiative. Richter’s contribution to this book (Chapter 6) employs photo elicitation to explore clergy life in British churches. He takes readers into the backstage of congregations, the vestry, a place traditionally used by clergy to prepare for leading worship. Drawing from the work of Erving Goffman (1959), Richter focuses attention on the role of the vestry in clergy impression management and, along the way, offers a critique of Goffman’s dichotomy between the front and backstage. It turns out that, at least among the clergy of Richter’s study, clergy public role performances may not be as insincere as Goffman suggests—or as artificial as skeptics want to believe. Together, these chapters on photo elicitation, to borrow a phrase from R ichter, are examples of how visual research methods may be used to open a public window on private social spaces.

Chapter 7 shifts the conversation to the use of video to collect and analyze data. Here, experienced documentary filmmakers Roberto Cipriani and Emanuela Del Re explore recent developments in visual sociology and the shift toward a more reflexive and participatory approach to visual research. They consider their experience of making the documentary film Haifa’s Answer, which explores conflict resolution and prevention in Haifa, Israel. It chronicles the Holiday of Holidays, an annual festival celebrated to symbolically express peaceful coexistence among Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cipriani and Del Re discuss the merits of collecting data through videography in collaboration with research participants and wrestle with the complications created by the widespread availability of, and the resulting fluency of research participants with, video recording technologies. They argue for a visual approach to the sociology of religion that is grounded, surrendered, and experiential.

The study of religious ritual is at the roots of sociology. While images may have been formative in Durkheim’s classic study (Kreinath 2012) Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the use of images in sociology lags behind other disciplines. In Chapter 8, Bernt Schnettler, Alejandro Baer, and Marlen R abi turn our attention to the use of video analysis to research meaning, memory, and ritual. They draw on their extensive work on Holocaust remembrance in Europe and the United States, and present a case study that demonstrates how the close inspection of videotaped actions and interactions may be employed to shed light on embodied, emplaced, and enacted rituals. They also suggest ways in which video analysis can be combined with other research methods for the study of contemporary religious phenomena.

Questions of research ethics are taken seriously in image-based research. Issues of confidentiality and consent of interviewee/photographers, the rights of those depicted in an image, and image ownership and copyrights are important considerations. These concerns have been taken up by others (e.g., Papademas 2009; Mitchell 2011; Wiles, Clark, and Prosser 2011) and are best treated within their specific, cultural, and moral contexts (Clark 2012). Janet Jacobs offers an example of a thoughtful treatment of visual research ethics within the context of her work on Holocaust memorialization. In Chapter 9, she considers reflexivity and representation at the intersection of visual research, feminist scholarship, personal identification with the research, and the social scientific study of religion.

Chapter 10 also considers the question of representation, but from a different angle. In it, Catherine Holtmann and Nancy Nason-Clark invite readers to consider an engaged form of scholarship: the use of images to present their findings about religion and domestic violence to nonacademic audiences in ways that encourage social change. In doing so, they address one of the biggest gaps in the field, namely applied visual techniques in the social scientific study of religion—or what Michael Burawoy (2005) calls “public sociology.” Based on research with religious leaders, church women, and men who have acted abusively or as community professionals fighting abuse, Nason-Clark, Holtmann, and the Religion and Violence E-Learning team have created a website to tell the stories of victims and perpetrators based on empirical data rooted in feminist research. It is a resource religious leaders, community service providers, and laypeople can use to address the unique needs of victims of domestic violence who are people of faith.This publicly available resource also helps service providers understand the importance of including religious resources in the process of change.

In the final chapter, I make an argument for a visual sociology of religion by answering a question that was posed to me after presenting an early draft of this chapter at a conference: “Why study religion visually?” I do so by drawing together the various streams of the book, echoing back the insights of the contributors to this volume. Even though the final chapter intends to bring the book to a conclusion, it stands as an invitation to a visual sociology of religion.


1 The history of image-based research in sociology,including early examples of sociologically informed photography, is discussed in Becker 1974; Curry and Clarke 1978; Stasz 1979; Curry 1986; Harper 1988, 1996, 2012.

2 For a more complete list of professional organizations and journals dedicated to visual methodologies in the social sciences, see Pauwels (2011:3).

3 Historian Jack Thompson’s (2012) study of missionary photography in Africa is an excellent example of the potential these images hold for social scientific research.

4 The Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Archive, which includes correspondence, organizational records, tracts, sermons, diaries, photographs, and oral histories, may be accessed at

5 Bill Aron describes himself as “the only freelance photographer [in Los Angeles] with a Ph.D. in sociology” ( and stands as an important example of sociologically informed photography.

6 Although he holds a graduate degree in sociology from Columbia University, Vergara works outside the academy as a photographer.

7 The Architecture of Contemporary Religious Transmission study upon which these articles are based employs researcher-produced and found images.

8  I am grateful to Bernt Schnettler for suggesting several of these references.

9 A narrated slideshow of Day’s work is available at

10 Butticci’s project website offers previews of her work:

11 Examples of graphics prepared by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life may be accessed online at

12 Grim’s TEDx presentation is available online at

13 Studies that make use of found images include Lam (2001), Notermans and Kommers (2012), and Savage et al. (2006); researcher-produced images are used in Jackson and Nesbitt (1993),Jules-Rosette (1975, 1980), and Nesbitt (1993, 2000a, 2000b); and some projects combine images from several sources, including Andersson (2009), Hintze et al. (2008), and Vassenden and Andersson (2010). Likewise, elicitation interviews may also employ materials other than photographs, including video, drawings (Mitchell 2011; Ganesh 2011; Ridgely 2011), and objects, leading some to propose “image elicitation” as a better term for this technique.

14 Examples and resources for digital storytelling and faith may be found at

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